Friday, April 15, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Eight: Lestrygonians

Having already established Leopold Bloom as a sympathetic character, even something of a role model, Joyce frees the poor man from the dismissive gaze of his self-absorbed colleagues in the "Lestrygonians" episode. With the exception of the previous chapter's bombastic, self-reflexive structure, all of Bloom's episodes thus far have placed the perspective in Bloom's head, but that's always a bustling place. Only when Bloom went out to the outhouse for a moment to himself in the "Calypso" chapter was the audience allowed to focus fully on the man's ruminations and not the clutter of conversation and keen but broken observation.

The organs and symbols of the chapter relate to digestion and food, and the schema for the chapter lists the technique as peristaltic, again digestive. I found two broad interpretations of Linati's vague use of the term "peristaltic prose": either it has something to do with recurring lines with minor variations and modifications, or, truer to its digestive nature, it shows words and ideas being broken down. Whether either (or both) these readings are accurate, this chapter certainly contains passages that support both interpretations.

Though he still interacts with people, Bloom finally finds a moment's peace and quiet in this chapter. Oh, it's just as dense as everything else, mind you, and maybe even a bit more at times. But here we read Bloom processing, digesting, all the morning's events, along with what he sees before him as he continues to move through Dublin.

The recurring lines and motifs appear almost instantly. Bloom's incessant curiosity and mild disdain for the Catholic Church peeks through as he looks over poorly dressed, famished children and wonders why the Church would continue to encourage multiple procreation in families that cannot afford all their children. As ever, Bloom mentally contrasts Catholic dogma with his Jewish practices. Thoughts about doctrinal sexual practices return to childbirth when an old flame mentions the tough pregnancy of a mutual acquaintance, which in turn causes brief ruminations on the loss of his own child, Rudy. Joyce starts out with a familiar subject, then manages to link other ideas from the novel until patterns emerge.

We first met Bloom thinking about cuisine in oddly grotesque terms, pining for the tang of urine in a kidney. As this chapter occurs from 1-2 p.m., hunger takes over Bloom's mind once more, and he again describes odd food in perversely loving detail, dwelling on the "feety savour of the green cheese" and the "pungent mustard" he slathered on his sandwich. This time, however, an iota of disgust registers in Bloom's mind; perhaps he's getting weirded out by his tastes too.

Of course, this recurring line ties into the idea of digestive and culinary prose. Bloom, intelligent and empathetic as he is, does not theorize like Stephen. His thoughts are more prosaic. Already hungry, Bloom imagines various kinds of foods and imagines the people who eat them. When he thinks of his dead sex life with Molly, he mentally lists foods said to serve as aphrodisiacs. He approaches politics and art on the same path, wondering what gets served at lavish banquets and whether an artist's diet affects creativity. It's a sort of "everyone poops" mentality, albeit earlier in the digestive process. There's a childlike simplicity in these thoughts, and I actually couldn't help but think of Karl Pilkington, the good-natured simpleton (with "a head like a fucking orange") whom Ricky Gervais adores. These culinary musings support Joyce's gentlemanly oaths that the book is not at all serious.

Bloom takes these thoughts, and others, and chews them for a while. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot put his wife's perceived affair out of mind, spotting the word 'bills' on a poster and leaping there to pills and then to STDs. As in digestion, these ideas break up and pass through his system, masticated chunks of thought drifting down the esophagus. Peristalsis is the process by which the esophagus moves food down the pipe without letting it come back up and out the mouth, but some of these ideas seem to want to be expelled. That rise and fall of unwelcome thoughts all the way to the rim of the throat before sinking back down gives the chapter a nauseating quality that makes this relatively more straightforward meditation as occasionally bemusing as the more chaotic chapters.

The character's metaphorical sense of digestion mirrors Joyce's literary mastication. Like the last chapter, the Lestrygonians episode overflows with references to Irish history (references that are becoming increasingly obscure even compared to what came before) and a denser word map of Dublin. Clips of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, find their way into Bloom's thoughts, as well as the doctrines and holy days of Catholicism and Judaism. The varying structures of the chapters has already introduced Joyce's understanding of various forms of literature, and I know even more experimentation is on its way.

In The Odyssey, the Lestrygonians were cannibals who set upon Odysseus and his crew after they landed on an island after the disastrous Aeolus affair. Here, Bloom walks into a restaurant for a bite, but he cannot bear to eat with the uncouth diners there, all of them boorishly stuffing their faces so fast some of them must not even know what they're eating. Like Odysseus, Bloom escapes from these savages and goes elsewhere. Bloom even thinks of cannibals when he recalls that potted plant advertisement and makes the vague link between the product and Dignam's corpse more explicit as he imagines cannibals eating Dignam's "potted plant" with lemon and rice.

This book is obsessed with the body. So far, we've seen this man eat, crap and sexually fantasize, and he does all of that here. Once again relying on food to get him to other subjects, Bloom thinks of simpler, happier times with Molly. Rather than just think about sex, he focuses on her feeding him seedcake as they copulated and sadly comes back to the present as he compares that old life to their current existence. Though Bloom's fears of being cuckolded appeared as soon as he did, it is in this chapter that Joyce makes it clear that, despite how much guidance he might offer Stephen, Leopold still has a great deal in his own life to sort out, and the more likable he becomes -- who doesn't love Bloom after he helps that blind man across the street? -- the more acutely his worries can be felt.

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